Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sometimes Teaching is the BEST Job in the World

I received this message today from a student I taught for 3 years back in Oregon.

I wanted to thank you. Even though you are not my teacher anymore, you still help me all the time. You wrote in my yearbook to remember that I am good at math, and I always go back to that and it actually helps me when I am stressed about algebra. Whenever I think about it, I feel as though I can push through and actually do it. I am doing pretty well in it so far and I owe part of that to you.

Sometimes teaching is the best job in the world.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Common Core vs. Regents?

This being my first year teaching in New York, navigating the Regents has been a challenge.  I feel so torn in different directions that I've ended up in a state of complete and utter indecision.  Especially about geometry.  Here are the facts:

  • I'm teaching at a private school so technically, we don't have to do the Regents but our parents want us to offer Regents prep courses.
  • The private school has its own curriculum imported from its California model that isn't correlated either to New York State or to the Common Core.
  • We are restricted to 50 total sessions with the students per year rather than the 150 classroom hours you normally get at public school.  If we need to go over 50, the parents have to pay more so we try very hard not to do that.
  • I love all the ideas the blogging community has for geometry, but everyone seems to be pushing Common Core and the geometry Regents exam doesn't seem to be there yet.  
  • I have my own inclinations for teaching geometry that I'm having trouble shoving to the side to adhere to any standards.  
  • Two months ago my boss asked me to look at our boxed curriculum from California and compare it to the New York State Standards and the Regents exam and make sure they were aligned.  I discovered that they couldn't be more different and she has asked me to come up with a Regents friendly curriculum map.  
I LOVE the way Drawing on Math has organized her geometry class, but I'm really torn.  I was also very inclined to do parallel lines and transverals right at the beginning but a Regents aligned textbook, AMSCO-Geometry, puts it more than half-way through the course.  Why did they make this decision?  Is there some profound reason students should do congruent triangles and transformations first?  They've split up all the points of concurrency in triangles into different chapters too, whereas I was inclined to put them all together.  Which way is best?  A lot of the organization seems strange to me, but I've only learned geometry through teaching it over the past two years (I was skipped through it in High School and my college didn't offer any college level geometry courses) and I'm unsure whether or not to trust myself on what seems logical to me vs. how the book organizes material.

In the same Drawing on Math post, she also mentions scrapping most of the logic unit and only teaching converses.  But the NYS standards have LOTS of logic material including converses, negations, contrapositives, direct and indirect proofs, truth tables and Law of Detachment.  BUT, combing through old Regents exams reveals that they only ever seem to ask questions about negations, and the Common Core doesn't have much logic at all... Yet I love teaching it and when I got to college and took college level math courses, the fact that I'd been skipped through geometry became a real handicap in the more advanced proof based classes because I'd never been exposed to logic before.  So I'm inclined to teach logic because knowing just high school level geo-logic would have really helped me.  BUT we only have 50 sessions and I can't waste time on material not on the Regents exam.  BUT everyone's saying the Common Core is better anyway so shouldn't I align our curriculum to the Common core and not to a standardized test?  BUT our kids need to pass the Regents because our parents care about it so much.  

My heart tells me that I should just teach it in a way that feels right to me and if the kids really internalize the material they will pass the Regents.  Yet the Regents has such specific types of questions covering specific topics that I'm worried if I don't teach them with the Regents in mind, they'll get to the exam and it will use vocabulary they're not used to and ask types of questions we haven't covered.  I wish the State would just trust me a little.  I can help the students navigate this material but I want to let them enjoy it and I want to let them explore and I feel like I can't do that with this ticking bomb hanging over my head.  I guess I just have to try something and hope.  Teaching is about experimenting however nervous this makes me.  I hate the idea of an experiment failing at the detriment to a student's enjoyment of math.  But we learn by making mistakes right?

[12/20/12 edited to add the following paragraph] I'm still struggling with the geo curriculum and I decided to trust the book and do triangles before parallel lines and transverals but I'm running into difficulties.  If you don't do parallel lines and transversals first, then you can't do the proof that there are 180 degrees in a triangle (or at least you can't do my favorite one) and trying to do all the triangle stuff without this is pretty crippling.  In fact talking about angles at all becomes a little sticky.  We're supposed to do exterior angles in the triangle unit, but how do you prove any of the exterior angle theorems without knowing there are 180 degrees in a triangle?  And what about AAS triangle congruence?  They've thrown that in much later in the course 3 units after doing all the other triangle congruence theorems.  I wish textbooks provided a justification for how they organize their content because I always start by trying to follow a book (they know best right?  Tons of experts and trials in classrooms and thousands of dollars.) and then always scrap the book a quarter of the way in because their sequencing just doesn't make sense to me.  I wish I could squelch my internal sense of logic and just trust a textbook... my life would be so much easier.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Where are the history teacher bloggers?

I have a confession to make.  I majored in history.  I loved doing research and piecing together an argument out of scraps.  I loved analyzing bias and wondering about how people's perceptions of history, true or false, shape how they act.  But teaching history was a whole different world.  The litany of timelines, facts, dates, and vocab words I was supposed to shove into students' heads while the clock was ticking left me with a sense of hopelessness.  I switched to teaching math.  In college I'd always taken a math class on the side because compared to studying history where nothing can be certain, the logical certainty of math kept my head from exploding.

My boss asked me recently, because of my history background, to help reshape the 8th grade history curriculum for our school.  We needed to take their curriculum that had been designed for California state standards and adapt it to fit into New York State standards.  Whenever I'm about to plan a lesson for math I consult my friendly math blogging community.  Sometimes I search specific blogs, sometimes I just google "system of equations activity" and scroll through the first few entries until I find one published by a blogger.  I've used curricula published by textbooks and by for-profit internet companies and visited the teacher stores and bought the workbooks.  None of the published material out there can even come close to matching the creativity of what math bloggers produce.  The lessons published by math teacher bloggers are adaptable, easy to implement, enjoyable and thought provoking.  I've been relying on this wonderful community for the last three years and I can't imagine teaching without it.  So when I needed to help develop curriculum for history, with joy I started googling to find fellow history teachers who could help me with this project.  Crickets.  Silence.  Page after page of historical info sites, or lessons published by for-profit companies.  Museum published curricula or government sponsored curricula abounded.  PBS has a wealth of nice lesson plans.  But where are the bloggers?  Maybe they're out there but they're much harder to find than their math teacher counterparts.  In fact, even while math teacher blogging is rich and prolific, none of the math teachers I've run across in real life know about this community and while I give them lists of my favorite blogs and tell them that it really is worth their time, none of them have followed up.

Reading math teacher blogs has revolutionized the way I think about teaching.  It has made me humble and insecure at times (because I feel like there's no way I'll be as awesome as the teachers I read about,) but that has pushed me to try more ideas, to keep pushing myself, to try to come up with lessons worthy enough to share.  When I feel overwhelmed or terrified by the responsibilities I've assumed the blogging community shows me others who push through difficulties with humor and humility and this gives me strength.  I guess I'm just trying to give a post Thanksgiving thanks.  My two month foray into history has made me so appreciative that there are math teachers out there taking care of each other.  I'm not a very good blogger yet, but I will keep striving to give back to this community that has given me so much.